After strong US rebuke, PM says no plan for ‘new’ settlements in northern West Bank

Statement from Netanyahu’s office comes as Israeli envoy is summoned over Knesset’s repeal of part of Disengagement Law; not clear if commitment applies to Homesh outpost

Illustrative: Visitors walk by the water tower on the ruins of the evacuated settlement of Homesh on August 27, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)
Illustrative: Visitors walk by the water tower on the ruins of the evacuated settlement of Homesh on August 27, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to issue a clarification on Wednesday that his far-right government would not build any new settlements in the northern West Bank after the US heavily criticized legislation by the Knesset this week that allows resettlement of evacuated areas.

A statement from Netanyahu’s office, issued after the US State Department summoned Israeli Ambassador Mike Herzog for clarifications on the repeal of part of the Disengagement Law, sought to portray the legislation as symbolically righting a historic injustice.

“The decision of the Knesset to cancel parts of the Disengagement Law brings to an end discriminatory and humiliating legislation that prevented Jews from living in areas of the northern West Bank, which is part of our historic homeland,” the statement said.

“However, the government has no intention of building new communities in these areas,” the statement said, noting that several members of the opposition had supported the law.

The new legislation, which was passed early Tuesday morning, rolled back clauses of the 2005 Disengagement Law that banned Israelis from the area where the settlements of Homesh, Ganim, Kadim and Sa-Nur once stood.

The destroyed settlements have been a symbol to supporters of an injustice they have sought to undo, while to Palestinians the areas are viewed as another section of West Bank territory stripped from them.

Israel’s Ambassador to the US Mike Herzog. (Courtesy)

The statement did not clarify whether the resettlement of West Bank communities evacuated in the 2005 disengagement, particularly Homesh, would come under the definition of “new” settlements.

The repeal will bolster the coalition’s efforts to legalize a wildcat outpost currently occupying the site of Homesh and a yeshiva that has been built there, which activists have repeatedly reestablished, while the army has razed it, since 2005.

Settlers at the Homesh Yeshiva gather in a tent at the former settlement of Homesh, west of the West Bank city of Nablus, on December 30, 2021 (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Repealing restrictions on Jewish entry was a required step toward legalizing the outpost. Homesh is built on private Palestinian land, according to a High Court ruling.

The statement marks another case of Netanyahu being forced to restrain his pro-settlement hardline coalition partners in the face of mounting opposition to the government’s policies from Israel’s allies, particularly the US.

The government’s decision to repeal parts of the Disengagement Law drew fierce criticism from the Biden administration, which took the rare step of summoning Herzog for an unscheduled meeting.

A readout issued by the US after Herzog’s meeting with US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said the American official “conveyed US concern” regarding the aspects of the 2005 Disengagement Law that the Knesset voted to rescind, including the prohibition on establishing settlements in the northern West Bank.

File: US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in Seoul, South Korea, June 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

The two diplomats also “discussed the importance of all parties refraining from actions or rhetoric that could further inflame tensions leading into the Ramadan, Passover, and Easter holidays,” the State Department said in an apparent reference to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s claim earlier this week that the Palestinian people are an “invention” — a claim the US condemned separately on Monday. Earlier this month, Smotrich called to “wipe out” a Palestinian town in additional comments that drew US criticism. He later apologized.

The Israeli embassy in Washington declined to comment on the meeting.

While the State Department readout did not characterize Tuesday’s meeting as a formal summoning or dressing down of Herzog, a source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that this was effectively the reason for the sit-down.

This marked the first time in over a decade that an Israeli envoy in Washington has faced such a summons, marking a further deterioration in relations between the Biden administration and the hardline Netanyahu government.

Hours earlier, US State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel opened the daily press briefing with a lengthy statement condemning the Knesset vote revoking parts of the Disengagement Law, arguing that the move flew in the face of Israeli commitments made to the US during the Bush administration.

Patel said the US was “extremely troubled” by the legislation, noting that one of the towns to which the law opens the door for potential resettlement was built on private Palestinian land.

Settlers at the Homesh yeshiva gather at a tent at the former settlement of Homesh, west of the West Bank city of Nablus, on December 30, 2021 (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)

At a summit in Egypt on Sunday, the Israeli government committed to not advancing settlement plans for four months and not advancing the legalization of West Bank outposts for six months, as part of an agreement with the Palestinian Authority designed to reduce tensions ahead of the Ramadan and Passover period.

A month prior, and just days before a similar summit in the Jordanian city of Aqaba, the panel responsible for authorizing settlement construction green-lit the largest-ever package of settlement homes — nearly 10,000.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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